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Matt's Occasional Writing Blog

Quote of the Day

"Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors." 

 

- The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)

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Music in Writing

It sounds worse than it looks

One of the understated joys of parenthood is when your children lovingly mock you in the form of a Pokémon card. 

 

I've been an off-and-on piper for almost fifteen years and consider myself solidly mediocre (as the picture here evidences, I'm just good enough to play a tune in church on St. Andrew's Sunday--but only if the church is big with lot of echoes and the congregation is especially charitable). The bagpipes are actually the fourth instrument I've picked up since childhood. My mom very much encouraged my learning classical music when I was growing up (though I like to think she came around to jazz and rock later on). Whatever the style, music was very much a thing in the Lucas house of the 70's and 80's. 

 

I bring this up because music often comes up in writing, especially in the fantasy genre. Perhaps it's because Tolkien wove so many songs into The Hobbit, or perhaps it's because music was one of the few forms of entertainment widely available in pre-industrial societies, or perhaps a lot of fantasy authors are simply frustrated bass guitarists (okay, so no one is ever a frustrated bass guitarist, but you get the idea). But having characters sing a song--and then writing out the song's verses--is very much a thing in fantasy fiction, almost a trope.

 

I was looking back over some of my stuff and realized I've done it a few times myself. My very first novel (a long, middle-grade animal fantasy) has about five different songs the characters sing at various points along their journey. The Mountain has one, too. Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock has a chapter that weaves in and out of a character singing a lament (the lyrics are very loosely based on an Oscar Wilde poem). It's not something I really set out to include, but it does seem to pop up from time to time in what I'm writing.

 

Music in prose a bit tricky, though. Sometimes the songs that come up in fantasy novels can come off a little flat (pardon the pun). To be honest (and, please Tolkien fans, this is meant as no disrespect, so hold on to your pitchforks and torches), I pretty much glanced past most of the tunes Tolkien ever put in his books (I mean, I could kind of get a feel for the goblin songs in The Hobbit, but it was a little hard to catch the tune of "O! Tril-lil-lil-lolly the valley is jolly! ha! ha!"). In fact, I'll go so far as to say that fashioning music into prose more often ends up as a distraction than an enhancement of the story.

 

And yet ... music is an important part of life. For a lot of people, music resonates with something deeper, even something divine. So it's only natural that if a writer is crafting a fantasy world, she or he would want to weave music into it in some way. How does one pull it off so that readers are humming to themselves, and not just flipping past pages? 

 

Two things, I think, can help a song in a novel truly sing. First and foremost, the music has to serve the story, not the other way around. Is recounting twelve verses of metered rhyme doing anything to propel the narrative, a conflict, a character arc, in any way? Is it foreshadowing something? Does it serve any purpose in the novel? If the honest answer is not really, then it probably needs to stay out. Second (and perhaps more challenging), is it actually musical? Often what's described in a fantasy novel as a character or a group singing a song comes across as a character or a group reciting a poem. There is a different beat and meter for spoken poetry than sung music (the latter must generally be shorter and punchier than the former). One trick I've found that makes a song in a story more likely to work: sing what you've written. Yeah, that's right, author. You want your reader to read your song? Sing it to them. Whether it's a tune you've made up or one you've heard somewhere, it doesn't matter. Sing your song. What this trick does is it puts what you've written to the musical test--if it can't be sung, it's not a song.

 

If your story needs a song in it, and if what you've written fits the bill of a singable song, then your reader will be less tempted to breeze past the singing parts, and might just try to sing along with you.

 

- Matt

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Happy New Year Wishes (and an announcement)

Another "book worth burning" ...

Happy New Year!

Feliz Ano Nuevo! 

(Yes, I know the "n" is missing a tilde)

Frohes Neues Jahr! 

 

However you celebrate it, however you say it, I hope your 2023 is a joyous, healthy, and prosperous year.

 

A quick update on the writing front. I'm pleased to announce that I just signed a contract with Montag Press for God of the Godless. This was a novel I put the finishing touches on around the middle of last year. A quasi-historical fantasy (it's set in a fictional country that, if you squint real hard, vaguely resembles the Roman Empire), Godless is a "life story" novel about a young man who gets kicked out of a seminary and is forced to become a gladiator. It's loosely based on a short story I published a while back. I'm particularly excited to once again work with editor John Rak, who has a real talent for shaping these kind of stories. I'll post an update later when we have a better idea of when the book will release.

 

In the meantime, thanks for stopping by the blog, and once again, Happy New Year.

 

Matt

 

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The “Big Five” are Still Big and Still Five

Although this blog has studiously and steadfastly refrained from veering into anything pertaining to the law, a recent legal ruling out of the D.C. District Court merits some mention, if only because it shed some really interesting light on the publishing industry. The case is United States v. Bertelsmann SE & Co., et al., but it's more widely known in the media and the writing industry as the blocked merger of two giants in the publishing industry. 

 

I'll preface this post by repeating the caveat of this blog: nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice, nor as any kind of indication as to how any judicial officer on my court or any other might view a particular case.


The case itself arose from an antitrust challenge to a proposed merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, two of the so-called "Big Five" publishing conglomerates (the other three being, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, and MacMillan Publishing Group). The government opposed the merger. Its case turned on a monopsony theory. Unlike the more familiar term monopoly (which, besides being a beloved board game, is the word economists use when they focus on how many sellers there are in a market), a monopsony occurs when there are too few market buyers (here, the buyers being the Big 5 as purchasers of book manuscripts). The trial lasted 12 days, after which the district judge (who now sits on the D.C. Court of Appeals) entered her ruling. It spans 80 pages. It's a bit of a dense read, but there were several points of interest to those who write for a living or for a hobby. I'll hit on a few of them.

 
First and foremost, it seems that the Big Five publishers' curation of potential manuscripts for profitable books is not so much an exercise of discerning quality, but a crap shoot. Actually, a game of dice in a casino would probably give better odds than what the Big Five churn out. Despite hundreds of imprints and all the resources the Big Five employ, "only 35 out of 100 books turn a profit … [and] the top 4 percent of profitable titles generate 60 percent of profitability." Indeed, the CEO of Penguin Random House likened publishers to "angel investors" who invest in thousands of books, knowing only a few will make it to the top. As such, the advance (that is, the upfront non-refundable advance payment of anticipated royalties to the author) is "the single most important term" in a Big 5 publishing contract—because most Big Five authors won't earn it out. In fact, the largest segment of Penguin Random House's revenues comes from their back list, not their new titles. As for smaller presses (of which, I can attest, there are many), the testimony before the court was that they merely serve as a "farm team" or "minor league" to the Big Five publishers; self-publishing was discarded as an insignificant factor in the industry.

 
The court's legal analysis is, as one would expect, comprehensive. I won't get too far into the weeds (first, because this isn't a legal blog, and second, because it has been many years since I've even had to think about antitrust law). But here's a rough summary. As the district court observed, Section 7 of the Clayton Act prohibits mergers and acquisitions when the concentration "may … substantially lessen" competition in a relevant market. The question before the court, then, was whether the proposed merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster would have an anti-competitive effect on acquiring manuscripts from authors. But what market of manuscripts was pertinent? The district court answered that question by employing a relatively narrow definition of the book acquisition market. The legal case was not so much about the state of the market for book acquisitions in general or even within the Big Five. The monopsony the court honed in on in this case was the market for "anticipated top-selling books," which, as noted earlier, turns out to be a pretty small sliver of book manuscripts. In fact, the market the court chose to address was the market for manuscripts that garner a $250K advance or greater. That market, the district court concluded, has only five buyers, and since those five vigorously compete for those titles, reducing the number from five to four—with the merged companies accounting for 49% of the acquisition market—would indeed result in reduced competition for top-selling manuscripts to such a degree that the proposed merger violated antitrust law.


Although this case has generated a considerable amount of discussion within the writing community at large, the set of writers the court was really considering—those whose manuscripts can fetch a quarter million dollar advance—was actually pretty small. I suspect the number of professional authors who fit that description could have all fit within the courtroom with some seats to spare. But the effects of blocking the merger will surely have broader impacts on writers (if not on the books the get published). I'll leave it to others to ponder what those might be.

 
Like I said, this really seemed to be a case about big publishing and big authors. The district court's relegation of independent publishers (whether small presses or self-published authors) to the outskirts of publishing significance has been discussed and decried by some folks. As a small press author, it did give me a chuckle to be informed that apparently I'm in the "farm system" for big league conglomerates in New York City. All I'll say is that courts have to work with the evidence they are given. I've not done an exhaustive review of the witness list in this case, but it appears that the government and the defendants' witnesses were largely drawn from the Big Five industry (whether publishing company officers, literary agents, editors, or major authors). And given the definition of the relevant market the court ultimately adopted, the court's remarks about independent publishing makes sense. Put it this way: it would have been somewhat awkward for the court to have made a factual finding that the fastest growing segment of book releases comes from independent publishers, but the market for the smallest sliver of the Big Five's releases needs antitrust enforcement.

 
At the end of the day, I suspect this decision won't have much of an impact for the majority of writers (or, at least, I don't think it will affect me). That's because most writers these days aren't working under a Big Five contract—and certainly not contracts with quarter million dollar advances. They'll keep doing what they do, and the book-buying market will keep responding to the books that they like—whether those books come from Simon & Schuster, or Kensington, or Ellysian, or Kick Starter. But the court's ruling does provide an illuminating peek behind the curtain of an industry in transition.

 

If you're interested in reading the court's 80-page ruling (and, I mean, who wouldn't be), you can find it here:Judge Pan's ruling

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Santa versus Science

Ho Ho ... Whoah!!!

The precise origin of the following article is somewhat in debate. I haven't checked the math, nor do I accept all of the writer's premises about St. Nick, but those caveats aside, I hope this gives you a chuckle, and I wish you a very Happy Holiday season.

 

Enjoy!

 

***************************************************

 

 

Santa & His Reindeer

 

As a result of an overwhelming lack of requests, and with research help from a renowned scientific journal, I am pleased to present the following scientific analysis of the alleged phenomenon of Santa Claus. 

 

1. No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

 

2. There are 2 billion children (persons under the age of 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn't (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish & Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that's 91.8 million homes. One presumes there's at least one good child in each.

 

3. Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with (see ** below). This is due to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second.

This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has .001 seconds to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house.

 

Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75.5 million miles; not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding & etc.

 

So Santa's sleigh must be moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second. A conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

 

4. The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child receives nothing more than a medium-sized Lego set (2 pounds), the sleight is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more that 300 pounds. Even granting that "flying reindeer" could pull 10 TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with 8, or even 9 reindeer. We need 214,200. This increases the payload – not counting the weight of the sleigh – to 353,430 tons. This is four times the weight of the ocean-liner Queen Elizabeth.

 

5. 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance. This will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as a spacecraft reentering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within .00426 of a second. Meanwhile, Santa, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250 pound Santa (seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

 

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And that's what happens when a lovely legend gets run through the cold hard press of science.

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Quote of the Day:

"And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end ..."

 

- Ecclesiastes 12:12  (KJV)

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Quote of the Day:

"If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all."

 

 

- Oscar Wilde

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HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!!

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Ellysian Press Halloween Sale

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Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I have a soft spot for the Norse myths. They were the go-to stories my parents would read to me at bedtime. Odin, Thor, Loki, Frey, and all the rest of the Aesir, they're like old friends. 

 

Any author who would put together yet another book of Norse myths faces some daunting challenges. First, it's been done a lot of different ways already. Second, there's not much of a coherent story arc in the overall body of stories with which to work (the primary source material for most Norse mythology books, the Eddas, are a hodgepodge of collected stories, songs, and poems). Basically, there's the creation story, some origin stories for individual gods, some random adventures, and then everyone dies at Ragnarok. Being myths, there are also inconsistencies and "plot holes" throughout (e.g., if Loki can just up and change himself into a mare in one myth, why does he need to borrow a cloak of falcon feathers to turn into a bird in another?). Finally, fans of the Norse myths (myself included) are going to read any rendering closely, critically, the way fans tend to do. So an author who hopes to set these very old and very popular stories in a fresh light has their work cut out for them.

 

Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology is excellent work. The book is a tight, delightful compilation of the most notable Norse myths. The prose is thoroughly Gaiman, through and through: droll, well-paced, and accessible to modern readers without coming across as trite. Gaiman also manages to weave some connective threads here and there to link the stories together somewhat. The final product is almost (but not quite) a re-imagining, rather than simply a re-telling, of the Norse tales. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

A little more polish on a few spots here and there could have made this charming book shine even brighter. The All-father, Odin, gets shortchanged with a somewhat flat characterization and relatively few lines (which is curious, because he's probably the most fascinating of all the Norse gods). And at times Gaiman's prose voice bleeds into the dialogue. I would have liked just one or two more stories. But these are small complaints and easily overlooked for a book of mythology that was both readily familiar and wonderfully new. 

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